Public reaction to advisers' pay indicates need for leadership
OPINION:THE STATE is banjaxed. The citizenry is traumatised with enormous debts, declining incomes, increased taxation, huge unemployment and emigration. Ireland’s banking crisis has been adjudged by the IMF to be the costliest in an advanced economy since the Great Depression.
It was in this context that our politicians, while out canvassing during the recent referendum on the fiscal treaty, came to a view as to what is the most pressing issue on the public’s mind.
Turns out its advisers’ pay.
The Coalition parties, Fine Gael and Labour, have reported back from their campaigns to say the issue of advisers’ pay exceeding the thresholds set out in the programme for government was the number one issue raised on the doorsteps during the referendum.
Given the options on the menu, your initial reaction would have to be that it is an odd, and even a worrying choice. Small-minded, begrudging, irrelevant; an example of a population focusing on a minor, unimportant detail when the future prospects of Europe and the credibility of the State are legitimate concerns.
And if that is the case, then the media must take its share of the blame. For some time now begrudgery-inspiring reports about advisers’ pay, TDs’ and Senators’ unvouched expenses claims, breaches of the Oireachtas rules on travel allowances and the use by Government-engaged consultants of UK companies so as to avoid tax, have been a commonplace on our front pages and our news bulletins.
It appears the population believes that the fact that Ciarán Conlon – a former Fine Gael communications director – gets paid €127,000 for his role as special adviser to Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton, when the programme threshold for advisers is €92,672, is a huge issue.
Likewise, the fact that Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin’s special adviser, Ronan O’Brien, earns €114,000. (O’Brien was chef de cabinet to Ruairí Quinn when the now Minister for Education was Labour leader. Howlin is the person whose job it is to impose the pay threshold on advisers.)
The media, and society generally, can go overboard in focusing on who is getting what, at the expense of what needs to be done to get us out of the mess we are in.
But getting us out of this predicament will require leadership. And the Government will find it difficult to provide guidance if the population does not believe it is to be trusted, and that it is at least doing its utmost to achieve equity in a very unfair world.
Just last month the EU-ECB-IMF troika pointed to the controversy over the household charge as a warning to the Government that the burden of dealing with our economic crisis must be “fairly and equably shared”.
Evolutionary science attests to how deep in the human psyche goes the interest in fairness. Back when our emotions were evolving in hunter gatherer societies, humans, almost alone in the animal kingdom, gathered food collectively for subsequent collective consumption.
We have been keeping a close watch on each other for a long time. Shirkers, and people who grab too much for themselves, provoke deeply ingrained inclinations towards outrage.
The whole tradition of political philosophy is based on the understanding that humans only flourish when they work together. Societies produce schools, drainage networks, market economies, legal systems, human rights.
If Ireland is banjaxed right now then it will only be substantially improved by society working together, in pursuit of a logical plan.
That requires not just government, but a government that is trusted. Seen from that perspective, advisers’ pay is at the heart of the matter.